Nutritional Potential of Food Waste

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Food wastage has serious environmental impacts, and flies in the face of inequalities. It also may contribute to avoidable nutritional deficiencies. Here we delve a bit deeper into the health implications of food waste, and look at some ways we can make changes.

Key Points:

  1. Approximately one third of the food produced goes to waste. 34% of that wastage happens in the home
  2. Reduced wastage could lessen environmental and financial costs, and ensure more people meet their nutritional requirements
  3. There are a number of planning, cooking, and storiage tricks that can reduce waste. The key is to first identify what you tend to waste and why, and tailor solutions accordingly.

You might have noticed the growing movement to reduce food waste. Whether it be the publicised efforts of the passionate Jamie Oliver to educate, or of grass roots organisations and individuals in your neighbourhood to make some changes. There’s good reasons for this movement too:

  • Food is wasted on a huge scale. Globally, it is estimated  that ONE THIRD of all food that is produced for us humans is either lost or thrown away. 
  • Put another way, an estimated 4,600 calories worth of food are harvested for each person every day. Only around 2000 of these calories are eaten. 
  • Australia is the 4th largest food waster in the world. Plus we seem to be wasting more recently. According to Foodwise, $10.1 billion of food was wasted in 2019, up from $8.9 billion the year before. Others estimate the value at $20 billion.
  • Food waste has significant environmental impacts, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, water and resource depletion, forest and wetland destruction with impacts on ecosystem quality and biodiversity.
  • Smarter use of the food resources we have has potential to reduce the major global problems of economic and health inequality. For example, less than a quarter of the food wasted in the UK, Europe and USA each year would provide adequate protein and energy to each of the 815 million hungry people in the world. 

There are other facts and stats out there, but I think we can agree that food waste is a problem without them. 

Besides these obvious issues, a question remains: what nutritional value can you get from the food that goes to waste? Well, I could only give you a precise answer by coming around  to your place and rummaging through your fridge and rubbish bins. Which I am not going to do. But let’s look at the data to get an idea on how it may apply to you. 

Nutrition wasted

Unfortunately, there is limited information available on the breakdown of household food waste. However, there is a UK household study that identified the biggest contributors to food waste by weight were fresh vegetables and salads (25%), drink (13%), bakery (11%) and dairy/eggs (8%), complete meals (8%), other foods (8%), meat/fish (7%), and fresh fruit (6%). We can’t assume that others around the world have the same wastage patterns. But it can be taken to indicate that micronutrients, carbohydrates, fats and protein needed for the body to function optimally are wasted in large amounts. 

Diving deeper into this study, analysis showed that the food thrown out for each person within a year could meet all of their nutritional requirements for 42 days

Certain nutrients were wasted in even greater amounts. For example, on average there was enough Vitamin B12 thrown out each year to provide 160 days worth of intake. The observed wastage of fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and (fortified) breakfast cereals are likely contributors to this. Vitamin B12 is essential for red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis, nervous system function and energy levels. 

It’s also worth noting that many diets are deficient in calcium, folate, and fibre. Alarmingly, access didn’t appear to be an issue, but the amounts thrown away were. 

  • The amount of dairy and other calcium sources thrown away would provide 120mg of calcium thrown away per person per day (17% of the UK recommendations for 19-64 year olds). 
  • The high wastage of vegetables (particularly dark leafy greens such as spinach, brussel sprouts, asparagus), meat/fish, fruit, dairy, eggs, and cereal products may have contributed to folate deficiency. Folate is required for DNA production, normal cell division and  to avoid megaloblastic anaemia.
  • Fruit, vegetables and cereal products contribute to a 3.4g wastage of fibre per person per day.

The study also found on average 326 kcal energy, 10.9 g protein, 0.8 µg vitamin D and 486 mg potassium was wasted by each person per day.

How do your eating and wastage habits compare? 

Sources of food waste

Of the 289kg of food wasted for each Australian per year (2018 stats), 34% comes from household waste. Put another way, we collectively waste 13% of our supermarket shops. Brits waste a similar level of food purchased (15%). 

Significant waste also comes from primary production (31%) and manufacture (25%). Farms dispose of up to 25% of vegetables. Distribution, retail and hospitality are other contributors.

A USA study that included retail and hospitality losses, calculated the loss of 1,217 kcal energy, 33 g protein, 5.9 g dietary fiber, 1.7 µg vitamin D, 286 mg calcium, and 880 mg potassium per person per day. Including food fed to livestock as well as humans, around four times more than is needed is produced in the USA, and three times more food than is required in Europe.

All players in the food industry have a responsibility to address waste. Household wastage is the factor we can each directly address in our daily lives. 

How can we reduce food waste?

The reasons for wastage tend to vary between developed and undeveloped nations. However, something that we can do is learn to better manage our shopping and food use practices, while pressuring more parts of the food industry to change their practices. I myself am guilty of buying a delicious batch of vegetables, then forgetting about them until I notice they need to go in the bin.  

We really need to break down the reasons we waste food so we can tailor a solution that works for us. 

Common causes and some potential solutions are:

  • It’s not eaten before going off. 
    • Take note of best before/used by dates/when you’ve purchased fresh food, and try to plan your meals to consume what needs to be eaten first, first. Remember that best before dates are just that- a guide and safety net for manufacturers. 
    • If there’s something in your fridge you know you won’t eat in time, consider cooking/freezing/pickling/otherwise preserving it. Once I bought a one kilogram tub of hummus because it was much better value than a 200g packet, and because I looooove hummus… but 1kg was too much even for me to eat within the recommended ‘3 days after opening’ window. But thanks to google I learnt that it could be frozen, so a few zip-lock bags and a couple of minutes later and I had delicious hummus ready for several occasions. So- if you don’t know if something can be preserved well, a quick internet search will tell you. 
  • Too much is prepared/served
    • Get a feel for how much you/those you prepare food for eat. It may be a bit trial and error but once you get a ballpark figure you’ll be able prepare appropriate amounts (whether by simply eyeballing portions or by measuring with cups or scales)
    • Left-overs! Did someone say easy work-day lunch?
    • Freeze leftovers you won’t eat within the next 1-2 days
    • Be creative, and use leftovers to make a different meal- eg: add a few vegies, spices, soy sauce or almost anything to make fried rice out of leftover rice; put baked meat/vegies on top of a pizza base
  • Our personal preferences don’t match what is to be eaten.
    • Plan your menus and shopping ahead based on what you already have in the fridge/pantry. I know I’ve been in the situation where there is something in the house I should eat before it becomes on the nose, but instead I’ve opted for something that seems more appetising (at least in that moment). I find two different tactics can work depending on the situation: 1) Opting to purchase nutritious foods to suit your preference over items you don’t particularly like can save you food- and ultimately even money, even if they are a bit more expensive than that food you don’t like. 2) Resist buying your ‘preferred’ foods until the other food is gone, or use up a large amount of the other food in your meal to fill you up, finishing up with some of your favourite. 

Foodwise offers some handy cheat sheets containing tips on storage, shelf life and shopping wisely.

The Food Waste Verdict

Although there is a lack of detail in the data, it is pretty clear that we waste a huge amount of food and that this can provide for many of our nutritional needs. Additional studies in the vein of the UK household survey would be valuable, particularly if they are of significant size and cover other regions. Strategic planning, appropriate storage and a bit of creativity in our food use could make a significant difference to the health of our planet, while maintaining or even improving the quality of our diets. This is important, as there are numerous cases where our quest to improve our health and longevity comes with a cost to the environment (eg: the penchant for almond milk).

What foods go to waste in your home? What causes this? Do you have any other tips to combat it?

References

Australian Government (November 2017). National Food Waste Strategy: Halving Australia’s Food Waste by 2030. Retrieved from https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/4683826b-5d9f-4e65-9344-a900060915b1/files/national-food-waste-strategy.pdf

Cooper, K. A., Quested, T. E., Lanctuit, H., Zimmermann, D., Espinoza-Orias, N., & Roulin, A. (2018). Nutrition in the Bin: A Nutritional and Environmental Assessment of Food Wasted in the UK. Frontiers in nutrition5, 19. doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00019

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO. State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World. Building Resilience for Peace and Food Security. Rome: FAO; (2017). 132 p. 

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (Updated March 2020). Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/#h7

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (Updated June 2020). Folate Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/#h3

Rabobank (2019, November 25). Financial Health Barometer Food Waste Infographic 2019. Retrieved from https://www.rabobank.com.au/savings/2019/11/25/02/16/financial-health-barometer-food-waste-infographic-2019/

Stuart T. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. London: W.W. Norton & Co; (2009). 352 p. 

Spiker, M.L, Hiza, G.A.B., Siddiqi, S.M. and Negg, R.A. (2017) Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients: Nutrient Loss from Wasted Food in the United States and Comparison to Gaps in Dietary Intake. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics , Volume 117 , Issue 7 , 1031 – 1040.e22

WWF (2018). Reducing food waste. Retrieved from: https://www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/food/reducing-food-waste#gs.7eix0m

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